Film review | War for the Planet of the Apes: Removed from the originals

War for the Planet of the Apes in no way a perfect film, but it is visually ambitious, thematically interesting and at times even thought -provoking

Hail Caesar!: The chimpanzee with a shotgun, together with his primate company, ready to War for the Planet of the Apes
Hail Caesar!: The chimpanzee with a shotgun, together with his primate company, ready to War for the Planet of the Apes

Review by Marco Attard

Here’s something this critic will repeatedly insist to anyone who’s even slightly willing to listen- the original 1968 Planet of the Apes needs no sequels, never mind prequels. But sequels it near-immediately got, bearing titles such as Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), or Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), and... there’s two more of these things, and a TV series, so you get the idea. Fast forward to contemporary times and we get the prequels, starting with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), followed by the Dawn (2014) and now, War. Judging from the titles, these damn dirty apes should be all set for breakfast, yet they are actually up and itching for a fight instead. But is it a fight they’re set to win? 

Anyone who’s seen these prequels should know the new films are far removed from the originals, which for all their allegorical nods towards the Cold War era (it was Earth all along!) they were, essentially, a weird and wonderful slice of pre-Star Wars cinematic science fiction. Instead, the new films take a far more and gritty and realistic stab at the idea of a world taken over by intelligent, sentient apes, and War continues the tradition. It opens a few years after the events of Dawn, and sees the simian community led very first intelligent ape, Caesar (Andy Serkis) try to make a space for itself in what is increasingly a post-human world. However, the last remnants of humanity - survivors of the “Ape Flu” virus that, depending on your place within the primate family tree, either grants you intelligence or outright kills you - continue to refuse to cohabit with the apes, and insist on fighting them instead. This is the status quo seen in the opening, a striking battle sequence where a clutch of human soldiers makes its way to an ape settlement deep in the temperate rainforest covering much of the post-apocalyptic California making the three films’ setting. As put down on paper it all sounds, frankly, ludicrous - a Vietnam-style conflict where machine gun-toting soldiers fight against chimpanzees armed with spears, rudimentary explosives and the occasional firearm, but it all somehow works, even when the film introduces the idea of “donkeys,” apes who decided to betray their kin in favour of serving Homo Sapiens masters. The direction is moody, the stakes established are deadly serious, and, most crucially of all, the plight of the titular apes wholly convincing. 

The fact it all looks convincing is crucial - the multitude of simians populating most, if not all, of the frames making War are as “realistic” as it gets. This counts especially for the Caesar, whose three-movie journey is a stunning combination of Andy Serkis’ excellent performance and the apex in the digital special effect creators’ craft. The result is a remarkable selection of creatures whose emotions are genuinely believable, particularly since said emotions are expressed not with words, but through faces and deep, soulful eyes. Too bad the same cannot be said when it comes to the actual humans making the antagonists, though - all of whom are anonymous grunts except for the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a maniacal figure who hates every ape he sees, from chimpan-a to chimpanzee. He is an obvious spin on Apocalypse Now’s maniacal Kurtz, but alas he’s less Marlon Brando and more a doughy nobody with a face with the same shape and lack of expression as a thumb. The effect is slightly distressing, really, and is further proof that a post-actor era might be upon us sooner, not later. 

Being 140 minutes long War is somewhat overlong, a fact not helped by a particularly saggy middle section where Caesar and friends slowly make their way to the snow mountains housing the military base-slash-ape prison that’s the stage for the film’s third act - a rousing take on The Great Escape, where the apes must infiltrate the base and free their companions before they end up killed by either the Colonel’s men or a US military intent on bringing them down. As such, the film would have benefitted immensely if it took less time to get to this excellent Escape from Apecatraz sequence. At least director Matt Reeves appears to have learnt a lesson from the previous film through the addition of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a goofy figure who adds a much-required dose of levity to what is, like the previous two films, an overly humourless film. 

War for the Planet of the Apes ultimately brings an end to what is a fascinating prequel trilogy. It’s in no way a perfect film, but it is visually ambitious, thematically interesting and at times even thought -provoking. Strangest of all, it also is the second ape-based film with unsubtle Apocalypse Now references released this year, following the giant monster romp that was Kong: Skull Island. Guess these are good times for a spot of monkey business?